'Persistence and Passion': Professor Sachi Cunningham Surfs to Journalism Success

Wednesday, May 06, 2015
Photo of Sachi Cunningham

Assistant Professor Sachi Cunningham’s talent in multimedia journalism has taken her as far afield as Iraq and Japan. But she always returns to the sea, where she surfs, swims and reports — right on the waves.

A recipient of SF State’s Presidential Award, Cunningham returns to campus in the fall after a semester working on her first full-length documentary.

Cunningham recently worked as a camera operator on the PBS Frontline documentary, “The Rise of Isis.” In April, she directed and edited a video feature for Newsweek about the effects of the California drought on farms. The Emmy Award winner also co-directed “Facing Fukushima,” a project that brought student journalists to the earthquake- and tsunami-ravaged region of Japan. Prior to SF State, she was a video producer for the Los Angeles Times.

Do you have any upcoming projects that you’re working on?

I have a film, [Endless Ocean], about the first surfer in the Azores, and that’s still getting out to festivals. That actually screened in the Azores, in the hometown of this guy. He made the front page of the newspaper and everything, so that was fun. ...

I’ve taken this semester off to work on a documentary called Crutch. It’s something I’ve been working on for 14 years. It’s a documentary about a dancer with a hip disability. He dances on crutches, and he does this hybrid of skateboarding and breakdancing. We have some funding. We have an editor working in LA right now. We’re about to sign with the producer of Dogtown and Z Boys, Leaving Las Vegas and The Sessions, so that’s exciting. Our goal is to get that into Sundance in the fall, so I’ll be working all spring and summer wrapping that up.

How did you get into surfing?

I was a swimmer my whole life, since I was 8. I was a competitive swimmer up until I was a sophomore in college. That was an NCAA Division I team at Brown University. And then I played water polo all four years at Brown.

I was always a water person, but from the East Coast, from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. I got to know the ocean because my parents are both from Southern California. And through my dad’s family, I was fortunate enough that they rented a beach house every summer in Southern California, so I got to know the ocean that way. ...

I loved it and two weeks were never enough, and I think that’s a large part as to why I’m in California.

How does the freelance work that you’re doing translate into your classes?

I really like the mix of work I’m doing right now because it’s all work that my students can get when they graduate.

It’s very hard to make a living as a journalist these days. One route is to go a staff job. There are still staff jobs out there, but I like learning all these different sides of the business and knowing the reality of what people are paying — which in journalism is honestly appalling, what freelancers are being paid. But I have the luxury of being able to try out all of these different forms of journalism.

Because I teach multimedia, it’s really important for me to be up to date on how my writing, my photos, my video and interactives — and how skills in those areas, can translate into work.

That’s a big thing for students: [how to gain employment when they graduate]. Do you have any tips for students in journalism, especially multimedia journalism, as to how to find work?

I used to say, well, it’s good to focus on one thing. I focused on video, and that is still a growing field and there’s lots of work out there in video. But I’ve gotten plenty of jobs just because I could do everything.

I just did this video job for Newsweek, and they’re like, “Oh, by the way, can you also shoot some photos for the magazine?” You know, for the same rate.

You have to know how to do all of it if you really want to be prepared for any job. ... If you want to make a living in journalism, you have to be able to take any job.

Any dangerous experiences or challenging experiences you’ve had in the field?

I do a lot of water photography as well, sport photography. But it’s in the water. I shoot a lot at Ocean Beach. I’ve had some photos published and work in the [San Francisco] Chronicle, Surfline, in Surfer Magazine and The Inertia.

And that’s actually probably the most dangerous work that I do. Because I’m swimming out in big surf with a camera. I mean, Iraq obviously had its dangers, but I try not to dwell on that too much, because, I don’t know, there are dangers in life in general, you know?

Do you have any thoughts on the future of journalism?

There’s always going to be a need for it, and for undergraduates it’s a great major because it teaches skills like communicating, researching and storytelling that they’re going to be able to apply to almost any job. It develops a sense of curiosity in students that I think is wonderful, and something we should encourage in all citizens.

The way that it sustains itself is still being figured out, but there will always be a need for it, and I see a huge need for authentic storytellers out in the world. I see [it] as a growth industry. Everybody in every industry wants someone to tell their story; that’s how you get noticed in all of the noise.

How do you choose your projects that you work on?

As a journalist, you’re pretty much curious about everything, but for me as I get older, and as a mother, you become much more aware of time and the value of time. There’s only so much of it, so I am grateful that I have this teaching job that allows me to be more selective in my projects. I’m mostly going for projects in subjects that I’m interested in, which right now are ocean stories and stories about the arts and the international conflict.

Do you have any future goals, things that you’re working toward for yourself?

I would like to finish [Crutch] and see it in theatres. I’ve never made a feature-length documentary so that will be a big accomplishment when I get that done.

I still have this idea of starting a coastal storytelling project, doing a citizen-journalism style or approach to getting a baseline of stories from coastal communities. To help create awareness of the issues facing our coasts now, and develop this curiosity in citizens for the future.

Any advice for journalism students?

For students, they should just know that persistence will get you a long way. Persistence and passion. If you follow your passions and are persistent in pursuing those, you’ll get to where you want to go.

— Lynn Brown


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